Imgur is celebrating its sixth birthday by releasing its paid subscription-only Pro user tools for all users. Imgur touts it as a birthday gift back to the community, but it’s also a shrewd move to reinvest in the quality of images its users are generating–thus upping user enjoyment and engagement. Or so Imgur hopes.
The Pro tools themselves are a modest upgrade that Imgur was charging $23.95 per year for. You get unlimited account images (standard users have been restricted to 225) and image analytics which show you the top 100 sites referring to your image, with an accompanying breakdown. (One Pro feature–the threshold before images get compressed being raised to 10 MB from 5 MB–is being eliminated.)
The birthday Pro tools release follows Imgur’s newly released Video To GIF feature, which lets anyone (not just logged-in Imgur users) cut an online video into a GIF–again, free of charge. It’s part of Imgur’s campaign to become recognized as a hub for content creation. That means sacrificing future Pro subscription revenue to raise the quality tide for the site as a whole.
“I think there’s an interesting business side to the story as we decide to transition,” says Imgur’s Director of Marketing, Tim Hwang, who Forbes called The Busiest Man On The Internet when he joined Imgur last May. “We’re looking for business models based less around our past monetizing of image hosting. We’re very confident to focus more on content and ads in the future.”
More and better user interaction, Imgur hopes, will lead to more and better ad revenue to keep the service self-sustaining. Hwang says that the company isn’t looking for another round of investment like the $40 million it raised in a Series A last April led by Andreessen Horowitz, with participation by Reddit.
Getting Reddit financially on board is full-circle for Imgur, which was created (where else) out of a dorm room in 2009 by now-CEO Alan Schaaf as a “simple image sharer” for Reddit users like himself. But after six years, Imgur has cultivated a community of users thanks to its democratic up-and-down voting system and comments–a user interaction incentive made popular by Digg and Reddit. Instead of applying that democratization to all Internet content, however, Imgur focuses on the over 1.5 million images uploaded daily to the site.
Almost on their own, Imgur users (“Imgurians”) have built a culture around talking about, voting on, and posting new image content in reaction to previous posts. That’s the power of the increasingly visual Internet, where still images and animated GIFs often resonate more than words do.
“I think that’s still a core part of what’s essential and valuable to Imgur, the serendipity to move through a lot of very interesting content very very quickly,” says Hwang.
When asked about other features Imgur is planning, Hwang remained coy other than saying they would help Imgur users be better visual storytellers, progressing their mantra from being “a simple image sharer” to “the Internet’s visual storytelling community.” Visual storytelling sounds lofty for a community that spent the end of last year trolling its members with surprise images of Russell Crowe’s character from Le Miserables, Javert, but even the small increase in posting power provided by the Pro tools gave users more freedom to post fresh, dynamic content.
“I remember the days when Imgur GIFs had a 2 MB size limit [and] 5 MB for pro users,” says Imgur user undercovergiraffe. “For me there was nothing more frustrating than making the perfect GIF, only to have to reduce it down to a GIF for ants in potato quality, just to meet the file size restrictions.”
Undercovergiraffe uploaded comical dog GIFs like other Imgur jokesters, but he also clipped a video segment to its essence into a GIF, trimming an off-ice moment during a hockey game into a short, touching vignette.
“GIF making has become an art form. A picture is worth a thousand words; a GIF can tell an entire story,” says undercovergiraffe.
Quoting a username points to another Imgur quality that Hwang credits for maintaining Imgur’s community: maintaining anonymity. Bucking the social media trend, Imgur doesn’t require users to use their real name or other personal information, which streamlines the process of creating content and interacting and other users. This anonymity will increasingly make Imgur unique.
“It’s a place where people can authentically act online and share stories,” says Hwang. It’s difficult to say how big a slice of the Internet image pie Imgur has, Hwang says, but the company has moved away from citing its daily upload count (1.5 million images per day as of Jan. 2014) to quoting a different figure: 60 billion, the number of views per month Imgur-sourced images get across the entire Internet.
“Over time, [Imgur] become a source for content,” says Hwang. “People look on Imgur for content and then post it to Twitter and Facebook. Our content is felt and shared across the web.”
Hwang might be tight-lipped about Imgur’s future releases to keep its community creating and posting, but reinvesting in that community–even at the expense of subscription revenue–seems like a long game to reinforce goodwill among the legions of Imgurians. And what better way to do it than by hosting an Imgur-sponsored IRL summer camp at Camp Navarro in Mendocino, California this August?